In Nobel Prize–winner Mario Vargas Llosa’s play, Al pie del Támesis (On the Banks of the Thames), one punch in the face between best friends sets a conflict in motion that lasts 35 years.
Directed by Mario Ernesto Sánchez and presented by Miami-based Teatro Avante, the Spanish-language play (performed at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio with English supertitles) plunges the audience into a world where memory and fantasy unveil questions about sexual identity. In this U.S. debut, actors Marilyn Romero and Julio Rodríguez deliver fascinating and memorable portrayals of two profoundly complex characters.
The play opens when Raquel Saavedra (Romero) pays a surprise visit to Chispas Bellatín (Rodríguez), a successful Peruvian businessman who is staying at the Savoy Hotel in London. Raquel shows up, claiming to be the sister of Pirulo, Chispas’ childhood friend. The two were inseparable as boys until one day when, as young adolescents, Pirulo attempted to kiss Chispas. Shocked and outraged, Chispas punched Pirulo and even though he apologized the next day, Pirulo vanished forever. As Chispas relates this story to Raquel, he reveals that he never forgot Pirulo, and that the loss of their close friendship created a permanent void in his life.
Raquel has her own memory of the events, and she soon reveals that she is not Pirulo’s sister, but rather Pirulo as he was meant to be: a woman. In fact, Raquel claims that Chispas’ punch in the face was the event that pushed her to leave home, undergo gender reassignment surgery and live as a woman.
From there, the storyline takes more turns. Al pie del Támesis intertwines memory with fantasy to such an extent, they become almost indistinguishable. In one monologue, Chispas painfully reveals that he can only make love to a woman if he’s fantasizing about Pirulo. Julio Rodríguez does an excellent job of portraying Chispas’ shame and frustration as he struggles with his own machismo and homophobia. In another scenario, Chispas imagines that he and Raquel have been married all along and the two reminisce about the many years of happiness they’ve shared.
Sánchez directs the actors to inhabit the play’s multiple realities fully, so that each scenario feels completely believable. This makes for a zinger of an ending, but more importantly, it expands our notions about sexuality. Along those lines, Marilyn Romero’s portrayal of Raquel as a transsexual woman is very engaging and credible. Sporting a blond pixie haircut and elegant stylish clothes, Raquel is passionate, intelligent and fiercely independent. Romero’s performance defies stereotypes — and the role is particularly timely at a moment when television shows like Orange Is the New Black and Hit & Miss have created characters that de-stigmatize transsexual women.
Al pie del Támesis is a dialogue-intensive play with dramatic emotional swings, but Romero and Rodríguez never seem to miss a beat. This impressive duo makes every moment of this labyrinthine journey into one man’s sexual identity an adventure.